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Bus to catch

Big running backs often befuddle the Bucs defense, which looks for payback Monday night against Jerome Bettis and the Steelers after last season's loss.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002


photo
[Times file photo]
The Steelers' Jerome Bettis rumbles 46 yards for a touchdown in a 17-10 win over the Bucs last season. He finished with 142 yards.
TAMPA -- It should have been a week of celebration for Warren Sapp.

On the day he turned 30 he was presented with a birthday cake bearing his likeness in a No. 99 jersey. The icing was being named to his sixth straight Pro Bowl, tying Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon for most in team history.

But Sapp spoiled his own party. He stormed back and forth in front of his locker, blowing off reporters and television crews. He avoided eye contact like a man in a police lineup.

Something was burning the Bucs defensive tackle besides birthday candles.

It might have been the season-ending injury to teammate Anthony McFarland. Or it could have been his six-game streak without a sack. Perhaps he hadn't shaken the defense's poor performance at Detroit.

Sapp isn't saying. But it's clear he plans to let the fire building inside him spread during Monday night's game against the Steelers.

"We prepared too hard and too long for over a year, waiting to see these guys again to clean this 200 (rushing) yards up off our resume," Sapp said. "It really wasn't them manhandling us or dominating us. It was just us being in the gaps not tackling.

"You don't forget a game like that, especially when a person just hands the ball off and they walk around and talk like they talk. It wasn't that type of ballgame. They had the best game of their life with 10 sacks on defense, and still we had the ball at the end of the ballgame trying to tie it. ... But we get a chance to erase it. There's not very many times in this league you get a chance to erase one that got away from you a year ago."

Of the nine losses at Raymond James Stadium since it opened in 1998, perhaps none is worse than last season's 17-10 defeat to the Steelers.

Not only did Tampa Bay surrender 10 sacks, the Steelers ran the ball down the throat of the defense, gaining 220 of their 344 total yards on the ground. Pittsburgh's 256-pound running back, Jerome Bettis, a.k.a. the Bus, rolled for 143 and a touchdown.

It's no secret the Bucs have struggled against big backs and bigger offensive lines. Deuce McAllister averaged 104 yards in New Orleans' sweep of Tampa Bay this season. Running behind a massive offensive line, Duce Staley rushed for 152 in a 20-10 loss Oct. 20 to the Eagles at Veterans Stadium.

With McFarland missing most of the game Dec. 15 at Detroit after breaking his right foot and Pro Bowl safety John Lynch sidelined with a neck strain, Tampa Bay gave up 144 yards to a team that was ranked 31st in rushing offense and played without starting tailback James Stewart.

In the past five seasons the Bucs are 1-12 when they allow a 100-yard rusher. And for the most part it's the bashers, not the slashers, who give Tampa Bay trouble. Stewart got them in 2000.

Even big, mobile quarterbacks are problematic. The Titans' Steve McNair (54 yards) and running back Eddie George (85 yards) helped shred the Bucs for 142 yards on the ground last year.

"(Big backs) can hurt you if they get hot," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "But we saw (the Falcons') T.J. Duckett two weeks ago. We have seen some big backs this year. Corey Dillon wasn't a dwarf. We saw some big dudes, man. There's no question big backs that have elusiveness, some of the great ones like Bettis, are tough, though."

The strength of the Steelers offense is its line, especially the blocking of center Jeff Hartings, left guard Alan Faneca and rookie right guard Kendall Simmons.

"Pittsburgh's really got a good offensive line," Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "It's probably the best offensive line in football. I'm not just saying that. It's a fact. I study a lot of tape every week. The Green Bay Packers have a good offensive line. This line is better."

With McFarland out, Sapp will draw more double-teams as the Steelers try to run at backup nose tackles Chartric Darby, Buck Gurley and Ellis Wyms.

"Anthony McFarland is a great player and has big shoes to fill," Darby said. "But I feel like Ellis, Buck and I have to come together -- Ellis coming in on third down and me and Buck out there to stop the run -- we can play as one.

"They're coming right at us. I really think they're going to come at me, Buck and Ellis. We've got to step up and be a man. Pittsburgh is a straight downhill running team. It's going to be a war."

The Bucs think they must eliminate mistakes. Kiffin and his players believe that when their one-gap system is played correctly, no one can advance the ball on the ground.

And aside from McFarland's injury, the Bucs are healthy. Last season linebacker Derrick Brooks had lost several steps to a foot sprain, and Sapp played with a torn rotator cuff.

"We watched the tapes from last year, how they attacked us and how we played and stuff," Kiffin said. "The first half they had 40 yards rushing. We didn't play the run well the second half. We've got to put together a good 60 minutes. They're so good, if you miss a fit on one or two plays, it can be a big breakout run for them. If you make a mistake, the offensive line takes advantage of it, and Bettis is a good back."

Sapp and the defense have been waiting all season for the Steelers. A victory would not only bring redemption but an NFC South title. Now that, Sapp said, would be something to celebrate.

"The thing about it is, the year before that we beat them 17-3," Sapp said. "It wasn't even close. How soon they forget how well we can play."


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